By Steve Weinstein
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One chilly morning last week the waiting room at 210 Livingston Street was hot with impatience. Things at the welfare center behind Fulton Mall rarely move at a clip, but people swore the waittwo hours and counting for somewas worse than ever. Perplexed newcomers dotted the lines that were dozens deep, among them many single mothers with young children and some single men, seniors, and couples. There was also the unlikely presence of two advertising professionals, who own a two-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights but lost their jobs and health coverage for their four-month-old twin boys.
The scene was a snapshot of a recent shift: The welfare rolls are growing. Though the growth is only in fractions of a percent since July, it is enough to contrast with the continuous decline in the first half of 2002 and the famous drop during former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tenure. (There was a brief swell following last year's terrorist attacks, when the city temporarily suspended case closings due to computer problems, but it was quickly erased.)
Giuliani's halving of the 1 million-plus welfare populationwith tactics that led the nation in toughnesscame to rival crime reduction among his greatest political hits. Of interest now is how Mayor Michael Bloomberg will follow that popular precedent in an economy of mushrooming need.
A spokesperson for his welfare agency was quick to downplay the new rise. The rolls grew steadily from 418,277 in July to 421,446 in September, an uptick of less than 1 percent. That small period of increase, while notably unusual, "does not a trend make," said David Neustadt of the Human Resources Administration (HRA).
He had reason to be cautious, given how high Giuliani raised the political stakes of public assistance. When HRA commissioner Verna Eggleston suggested this March that Giuliani's manual-labor-for-benefits approach had been too severe, the Manhattan Institute, an influential conservative think tank, attacked. She was "a Dinkins-era throwback" indulging in "hypersensitive hand-wringing, remote from commonsense reality," went the rant in its policy journal.
When a budget watchdog agency in January mistakenly projected a hefty increase based on the post-September 11 blip, the tabloids zeroed in with gusto. "It's clear that those who hated welfare reform from the start will jump on momentary statistical anomalies just so they can undermine reform," the New York Post fumed. The Daily News railed against "the take-from-the-middle-class-to-give-to-the-poor exponents" and called for abolishing the Independent Budget Office. (By contrast, the News recently decried the mayor's budget-conscious decision to close 24-hour city animal shelters at night, writing, "Outraged? You should be. By the plight of all the poor pooches lost, abandoned or worse in our streets.")
Informed last week of the slight growth in the dole, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald warned, "If the rolls go back in New York in a significant way, it'll damage Bloomberg. Clearly, he doesn't have the same philosophical energy directed toward the issue of dependency that Giuliani did."
But anti-poverty advocates are alarmed that the increase isn't much bigger. Besides welfare, all other measures indicate a poverty explosion. City unemployment was at 7.6 percent in August, compared to just over 5 percent nationallyand according to the Fiscal Policy Institute it could rise to 9 percent and even higher among low-wage workers by year's end. Some 800,000 New Yorkers receive food stamps, while even conservative estimates suggest that just as many should be getting them but don't. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger has said over 1 million residents depend on charity for food, and HRA says soup kitchen demand is up.
Most dramatically of late, the city's nightly homeless shelter population is at its highest in history37,129 as of October 16with about 65 percent of families in the system receiving welfare.
Gone is the late-1990s boom economy that helped absorb the Giuliani welfare cuts. In the lesser fiscal crisis of the early 1990s, the city welfare rolls soaredfrom 671,000 in December 1990 to 859,000 in December 1994, according to the IBO. But this year, even as homelessness and hunger have ballooned, welfare rolls plunged over 9 percent from January through July to reach their lowest level since 1965.
"However you look at it, it appears there are a lot more poor people in New York City," said Wendy Bach, a poverty law attorney at the Urban Justice Center. "Why is the welfare system moving along business-as-usual?"
She says her staff of welfare advocates, who handle about 600 cases per quarter, "have seen nothing different on the ground" from Giuliani to Bloomberg. Sanctioningthe punishing of rule breakers by withholding cash assistance or, ultimately, closing a caseis "no more humane," she says. "Minor violations such as being 15 minutes late for an appointment or telling them you're sick can result in a sanction as long as six months. You can be in strict compliance with work requirements but [because of administrative sanctions] still have your case closed." The most recent city stats, from June 2002, show that approximately 33,000 out of 196,000 cases were in the sanction process.
"There's nobody sitting and living in luxury off of welfare," says Bach. The average monthly cash grant to a family of three was $517 in August, or $129 per week, and the vast majority of recipient families consist of a single mother and her children. Says Bach, the grants are "bare-minimum subsistence."
Asked about the ongoing sanctions and this year's remarkable overall decline in welfare, HRA's Neustadt said, "We believe that some of the people whose cases were closed because they didn't show up [for an appointment] got a job." He said, however, "We don't have good data on what happens to people leaving," and said half the cases closed in the 2002 fiscal year ended due to "non-compliance" with rules.
Advocates for the poor took Bloomberg's rejection of federal food stamp money earlier this year as a sign that the Giuliani era wasn't over. The federal waiver would have extended food aid for some 24,000 childless New Yorkers. Neustadt says, "We don't believe there was a single person who'd been deprived of food stamps because of rejecting the waiver."
But the chair of the City Council's General Welfare Committee, Bill de Blasio, credits Bloomberg with bringing a "night-and-day culture change" to the welfare administration. He said, for instance, that Bloomberg officials are willing to share data and communicate with the councilimprovements that perhaps speak to the low standards set during the previous mayoralty. In his May welfare address, Bloomberg surprised listeners with a compassionate tone and an emphasis on the value of education in helping people move off welfare, in contrast to his workfare-championing predecessor.
Recipient groups have said the shift in tenor has not been backed by much practical change. But just 10 months into Bloomberg's first year, HRA says improvements are still being planned. In one concrete advance, Bloomberg put in motion federal funds from the 1998 Workforce Investment Act aimed at helping low-income Americansas much as $100 million that simply gathered dust under Giuliani. And at a hearing last week on a City Council bill to make high school and college more accessible to recipientshalf of adult recipients never finished high schoolan HRA official spoke of working toward a compromise. Giuliani flatly rejected the measure, and at a hearing several months ago, Bloomberg's HRA opposed an earlier draft.
If Giuliani made welfare so political that it seemed personal, Bloomberg has been harder to pin down on poverty. His greatest passions to date have included a smoking ban in bars and noise reductionnot quite subsistence issues. He recently dismissed suggestions that homelessness was rising, despite the unprecedented shelter numbers. And he largely supports the Bush administration's federal welfare proposal, which demands work participation at a rate far higher than even Giuliani was able to achieve.
Meanwhile HRA, like other agencies, must tighten its belt to help close the yawning budget gap. Since cash assistance comes mostly from the feds and state, the cuts will likely be mostly administrative. The folks at 210 Livingston Street can expect longer waits. But with hard times projected for years to come, the real worry would be if the lines suddenly got shorter.